OPINION: Govt risks putting comms in closet

The Government is in a hurry to find a new way to measure public services. The triennial best value survey of all councils is being replaced by the 'New Place Survey' of local people - which is bad news for PR practitioners and an issue to which they need to turn their attention.

Alex Aiken
Alex Aiken

The survey attempts to assess how people feel about their neighbourhood by asking 25 questions on a range of issues, which appear quite selective.

It asks about sexuality but not about satisfaction with the local authority. There's a question about religion, but few about specific council services. There is only one question about the quality of communications, which relates to emergency planning.

This approach appears to mark the return of communications to the broom cupboard of government concerns.

The Best Value Survey of 2006 had ten questions relating to communications. Keeping the public informed was a key measure, showing that it mattered. National measures for how well informed people felt gave communications teams a useful benchmark.

There are more serious flaws with the survey, which, if uncorrected, may deliver a damaging reputational blow to local authorities when the survey starts in the autumn. It asks about how public services overall have worked together, rather than seeking to evaluate perception of specific agencies. This is fine in principle as part of the place-shaping agenda but appears to fail the test of real accountability. For example, areas with serious crime are likely to report worse scores than low crime areas. Yet all the relevant agencies will take the blame.

Central government has improved the position of public service communications by championing public relations through initiatives such as Connecting with Communities. But the survey as currently configured may be a retrograde step.

This survey, authored by the Department for Communities and Local Government, is currently out to consultation, which finishes on 8 February. If you want to help safeguard your future reputation, enter the debate before you find your authority held accountable for the actions of others.

Alex Aiken is head of communications at Westminster City Council

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